The number of surviving documents which regard Vermeer, his family and his art are tantalizing few, but many more than that regard the great part of Dutch painters.1 Although historians have only recently fleshed out his Vermeer's artistic stature within his society, little is known of his immediate family and almost nothing of Vermeer the man. The following is a brief outline of the painter's artistic, personal and civic life.
1591 - Vermeer's father, Reynier Jansz. (c. 1591–1652), is born on Beestenmarkt number 14 in a house called Nassau, in Delft. His parents were the tailor Jan Reyersz., who had moved from Flanders to Delft by 1597 and Cornelia (alias Neeltge Goris, who died 1627). Neeltge Goris is active as uijtdraegster, or a second hand goods dealer, liquidating estates of deceased people. Paintings are frequently part of estates.
1615 - Vermeer's father, then a silk weaver (kaffawerker), marries Digna Baltens (d.1670) in Amsterdam. When Digna signs a statement to the effect that she is unmarried at the time, she with a cross. Later she learns to sign her name in full. The marriage is performed on 18 July. Reynier Jansz. is 24 years old.
1620 - The couple baptizes, Geertruijt, their first child, in Delft.
1631 - Reynier Janz. Vos becomes a member of the Guild of Saint Luke as a "Master Art Dealer" (Mr. Constvercoper). This title allows him to buy and sell paintings in Delft. He pays six guilders, the entry fee for a Delft citizen.
1632 - Baptism of Johannes Vermeer as "Joannis" in the Nieuwe Kerk on October 31. Johannes is Reynier's second son.
1640 - Reynier signs a deposition as "Vermeer." Again, the reason for the change in name is unknown.
1641 - Reynier Janz. Vos buys a large house and inn called "Mechelen" for 2,700 guilders on the Grote Markt (Great Market), in Delft. Three days earlier, Jan Thins (brother of Maria Thins, Vermeer's future mother-in-law) bought a house on the Oude Langendijk, Delft. In this house Vermeer will keep his studio and spend most of his adult life.
1652 - On October 12, Reynier Janz. Vos is buried in the Nieuwe Kerk, Delft.
1653, April 5 - Johannes Vermeer registers his intentions to marry Catharina Bolnes, the youngest daughter of Maria Thins and Reynier Bolnes. The night before, the well-known Delft painter Leonard Bramer and a certain Captain Melling declare that Maria Thins refused to give her consent in writing but she states that "she would suffer the (marriage) banns be published and would tolerate it."
April 20 - Johannes and Catharina Bolnes get married in Schipluiden, a small village an hour's walk south of Delft.
April 22 - Vermeer and the successful painter Gerrit ter Borch from Deventer co-sign a document in Delft.
December 29 - Vermeer is registered as a member of the Guild of Saint Luke, in Delft. He pays only one and a half guilders of the six guilders of the master's fee.
1655, December 14 - Vermeer and his wife co-sign a document declaring themselves secondary sureties and co-principals for a debt incurred by the deceased Reynier Jansz. Vos. The document is signed "Johannes Reijninjersz Vermeer," with "Vosch" crossed out.
1657 - Maria Thins, in the first draft of her testament, leaves to Vermeer's daughters jewels and the sum of three hundred guilders to Vermeer and Catharina.
Vermeer borrows the sum of two hundred guilders from Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, a wealthy Delft citizen who will eventually purchase at least 19 paintings by Vermeer.
"All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name. Vermeer."
À la recherche du temps perdu
1662 - Vermeer is appointed one of the headmen (hoofdman) of the Guild of Saint Luke. This fact has been interpreted as a testimony of the high esteem in which the artist was held at the time. However, at that time many painters resident in Delft had left for the more prosperous Amsterdam.
1663 - A French diplomat and art connoisseur, Balthasar de Monconys, visits Vermeer in Delft, notes in his diary that he was unable to see any paintings there and had to visit the house of a baker, where he saw a painting with a single figure. De Monconys remarks that the price paid was far too high. The baker may be Heindrick van Buyten, a well-to-do baker and prominent citizen of Delft, who owned at one time or another at least three paintings by Vermeer.
November 12 - Vermeer is listed as an outgoing (second-year) headman of the Guild of Saint Luke in Delft. The incoming headman is Anthonie Palamadesz, a successful painter of interiors in Delft.
1664 - In a death inventory of the English sculptor who lived in The Hague, Jean Larson, is listed "a head by Vermeer."
1665 - Pieter van Ruijven and his wife Maria Knuijt leaves a considerable sum five hundred guilders to Vermeer in their last will and testament. This kind of a bequest is very unusual and presumably testifies a close relationship between Vermeer and Van Ruijven. Vermeer's wife is excluded in he predeceases her. An average Dutch house might cost one thousand guilders.
Maria Thins empowers Vermeer to collect various debts owed to her and to reinvest the money according to his will and discretion.
Another of Vermeer's children is buried in the Nieuwe Kerk, in Delft.
1668 - Vermeer paints, signs and dates the The Astronomer.
1669 - Vermeer paints, signs and dates The Geographer.
Vermeer's mother leases Mechelen to a shoemaker for three years.
Vermeer and his wife bury another child in the Oude Kerk.
1670 - Vermeer is appointed a second term headman of the Guild of Saint Luke along with the outgoing headman Louijs Elsevier.
Vermeer's mother is buried in the Nieuwe Kerk, in Delft, February 13.
Geertruijt Reynier Vermeer, Vermeer's sister, is buried in the Nieuwe Kerk, in Delft.
Vermeer inherits Mechelen from his mother, July 13.
1671, October 28 - Vermeer is listed as the outgoing headman of the Guild of Saint Luke in Delft, along with the incoming headman Cornelis de Man.
1672 - Vermeer leases Mechelen to an apothecary for six years.
Vermeer travels with two other headmen of the Guild of Saint Luke to The Hague in order to appraise a collection of disputed Italian paintings. They testify before a notary that the works are "not only not outstanding Italian, but to the contrary great pieces of rubbish and bad paintings."
1673 - Another child of Vermeer is buried in the family grave, purchased by Maria Thins, in the Oude Kerk.
1674 - Vermeer's name appears on the register of the Delft militia. In the words of a Delft edict of 1655, Schutterij (the Dutch word for guardsman) were "the most suitable, most peacefully and best qualified burgers or children of burgers."
1675 - In the last document in which Vermeer's name appears he was alive, the artist borrowed one thousand guilders from Jacob Rombouts in Amsterdam, using as collateral a restricted obligation under the custody of the Orphan Chamber of Gouda for 2,900 guilders, to the usufruct of which Maria Thins was entitled.
Vermeer is buried in the Oude Kerk, in Delft, 16 December. He leaves an impoverished widow and eleven children, ten of whom are still minors. The last of his children to be buried in the family grave is placed on his coffin.
1676 - An inventory of movable objects from Vermeer's estate is compiled. Anthonie Leeuwenhoek, inventor of the microscope and famous scientist from Delft, is appointed executor of Vermeer's estate.
Catharina Bolnes petitions the high court of Holland and Zeeland to issue letters of cession to her creditors taking into account her disastrous financial condition brought on by the war with France. Her request is granted.
1677, 2 and 5 February - Leeuwenhoek appears before the Lords Aldermen of Delft to settle Vermeer's debt with Jannetje Stevens, who then transfers back to Vermeer' estate twenty-six paintings in the possession of Jan Coelenbier. A public sale of the paintings is planned.
Maria Thins notifies that The Art of Painting ("de Schilderconst") was transferred to her by her daughter and that the painting should not be included in the sale of Vermeer's estate in the Guild Hall of Saint Luke.
Leeuwenhoek denies the legality of the transfer.
The sale of the paintings takes place in the Guild Hall, March 15. No records of the sale survive.
1680, 27 December - Maria Thins is buried and her daughter Catharina Bolnes inherits her possessions.
1687 - Catharina dies in Delft during a visit to her daughter Maria Vermeer and Johannes Cramer at their house the "Blue Hand" on Verwersdijk. She is given her Last Sacraments on December 30 and is buried three days later. Her relatives could afford to pay twelve pallbearers. She leaves five children under twenty-five years of age who were still unmarried.
Walking gloomily around the house, looking through doorways from room to room, Vermeer would have encountered some of his many children and been aware of the strenuous efforts Catharina was making to keep them properly fed and clothed. He would have seen on the walls the pictures that his mother-in-law owned and that he had used as part of the scenery in his own paintings. He might have stopped to look at The Art of Painting. We don't know why he collapsed, but collapse he did, a week after St Nicholas's Day. Did he have an infection, for which the apothecary's remedies proved useless? An "extreme cold"…? An epileptic fit? Acute melancholia which brought on a depression in which he simply submerged? Or something else?
Some of the putting-on of paint in his later pictures seems uncharacteristically coarse, and drink was as close as the nearest tavern, or indeed as the nearest apothecary's, to quell any sense of failure as a head of family or as an imperfect painter and thereby injure control of the brush. Catharina had her own ideas, though we may have to read between the lines of her statement to the High Court a year and a half later to guess what they were. She said that the effect of being unable to trade, being so burdened with children and being without resources had caused her husband to lapse into "decay and decadence." The last word is striking: decadence might suggest an act of volition by the victim, such as an intensive bout of drinking that could have brought on alcohol poisoning and liver failure. On the other hand, it might mean simply a sudden physical decline: did he have a stroke? In any event, Catharina went on, Vermeer had taken his problems so to heart that, "as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day and a half he had gone from being healthy to being dead."
It was as simple and as short as that. Was there time to consult him to see if they should call a priest for the last sacraments? The register for the Oude Kerk records the burial on 15 December, 1675 of "Jan Vermeer, art-painter on the Oude Langendijck, in the church, 8 children under age." This "Jan" was a rare written use of what well may have been the name by which Catharina and Maria Thins called him. There were, in fact, ten minor children at this point. Vermeer was forty-thre.
His burial involved a rearrangement of the family grave. The infant who had been buried two and a half years earlier was taken out momentarily while Vermeer was lowered into the grave, and then the tiny remains of the child were put on top of its father's coffin. When the Chamber of Charity next day filled in its report of what had been donated in lieu of Vermeer's best outer garment, there were three succinct words: "Niet te halen" -"Nothing to be got."
Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft, New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2001, 203-204.